Northwestern men’s basketball has NCAA tournament in its sights

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It’s gonna happen.

No, not the Cubs. They’re complete. Who cares if they win another World Series in our lifetimes?

But Northwestern men’s basketball? Now there’s the mission. There’s the miracle in progress.

What’s gonna happen?

If all goes as it should — minus curses or brain-destroying midterms — the Wildcats are going to play in the NCAA tournament in March.

They never have played in the NCAA tournament. Forget the Cubs’ 108-year World Series drought. Never!

Of course, the tournament only has been in existence since 1939, so NU’s absence totals just 77 seasons. But that ‘‘never’’ sticks out like Gomer Pyle’s Adam’s apple.

Think of it. You don’t have to be the greatest team in the country. These days, you only need to be one of the 64 best teams (68, if you count play-in games).

Adding a dash of salt to this hoops wound is the fact that the first NCAA men’s basketball championship was held at NU’s Patten Gymnasium.

The old gym has been torn down, but Oregon beat Ohio State 46-33 in the title game back in 1939. The Wildcats weren’t in the tourney. Ain’t that a kick in the head?

But enough history. The current Wildcats are 15-4 and tied for third place in the Big Ten (which, don’t forget, has 14 teams). And coach Chris Collins said his team is good.

Collins, who is in his fourth season in Evanston after studying at the knee of Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, knows all about the drought. And he knows that as his team gets closer to reaching the tournament, the ‘‘chatter,’’ as he calls it, will get greater.

‘‘The guys know the story,’’ Collins said Tuesday in his office above the practice floor. ‘‘And they know about the Cubs. But I like to use the Cubs as inspiration. You close your eyes and envision that could be you. The chance to do what has never been done, we all want that.’’

Most important, said Collins, a gym rat since his dad coached the Bulls and he was a mop-wielding ball boy obsessed with the game, is the way the Cubs journeyed to their success.

‘‘I loved how confident and joyful they were,’’ he said. ‘‘They weren’t carrying the weight of 100 years on their backs. They were having fun.’’

So Collins and his boys will have to stay loose as the pressure of the final 12 games inflates. All those games are conference games, and each is winnable or losable.

The Big Ten is a free-for-all this season. Every team has at least one conference loss, and every team but Rutgers has won at least one conference game.

NU, for its part, plastered Iowa 89-54 on Sunday at Welsh-Ryan Arena. That’s an annihilation of a decent Big Ten program; that’s not lucking out.

Maybe Iowa didn’t come ready to play, but Wildcats guard Bryant McIntosh’s 20 points and 10 assists weren’t an accident.

How did the Iowa wipeout occur?

‘‘I think it all just came together for us,’’ said Collins, resplendent in his purple T-shirt with the big white ‘‘N’’ on it. ‘‘We’ve put it together for stretches earlier. Against Dayton, we were ahead 40-17 at the half and then let them back in the game and won by three. We put it together for part of the game against Texas [a 77-58 victory].

‘‘But this Iowa game, to me, was big. We had a large home crowd for our opener against Minnesota and lost. We had a packed crowd for Iowa, and we brought it.’’

As Collins spoke, his players were finishing their lifting in the weight room at the nearby Nicolet Center. McIntosh and his pals chatted and bonded as they walked to the locker room.

Two players — 6-5 Scottie Lindsey and 6-7 Vic Law — have made a huge difference in NU’s program. They are the Wildcats’ two leading scorers, and they are local kids.

‘‘Lindsey’s from Fenwick, and Law’s from St. Rita,’’ Collins said. ‘‘Local guys who stayed home. That’s huge.’’

Yes, it is. Because they’re not just local, they’re great ballers.

The players are all in for the NCAA tournament quest.

‘‘Nothing like being the first,’’ Collins said with more than a hint of a smile.

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.


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